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New York is beautifully multicultural (um, right?)

We asked well-known locals of all colors to talk about what diversity really means in 2008.


Sparked by angry letters about our white-heavy Top 40 New Yorkers list (a few issues back), we asked well-known locals of all colors to talk about what diversity really means in 2008. Pissed-off readers, take note:Some of your ex post facto nominees for our 40th Anniversary issue make appearances in this panel. See if they agree with you.

What does multiculturalism mean in New York? Are we a melting pot or a mosaic?
Parker: New York has always been a melting pot that didn’t melt. Take, for example, the Korean fruit markets: We buy fruit and vegetables from these markets. It would make sense that we should know something about the history and culture of Korea. The people working at these stores can do much more than sell fruit.
Brown: A mosaic or melting pot implies that there is an integration that I don’t think is true in the city.
McBride: We’re neither. We’re a waystation for people who want to make money and a whipping post for people like Rudy Giuliani, who cut their teeth on the pain of poor people and still get to run for President.
Kweli: New York City is not a true melting pot, but the outer boroughs are, especially Brooklyn. As the largest borough, we have Russians, Trinis, Italians, Puerto Ricans, Israelis, Palestinians, Jamaicans and everyone else living side by side.
Iyer: Demographically, New York is more of a mosaic, without question. All over New York you see many different immigrant communities that are large enough that they can maintain a semblance of their cultures. On the other hand, Queens is a truly multicultural borough, one of the most diverse places on the planet, and you see more people interacting across these boundaries of nation and culture.
Yamamoto: I don’t think we are a melting pot. Nothing is melted to me.
Yosef: The possibility for an immigrant to have the freedom to be himself and to implement his own identity and culture makes it a melting pot.
Willis: But the pot has not been stirred.
Q-Tip: It’s more of a mosaic. Slowly but surely, the neighborhoods are starting to mix. For example, in Harlem, a lot of white people are moving in, but they don’t interact with the locals too much. It creates a neighborhood within a separate neighborhood. So now there’s Harlem and there’s white Harlem.
Santogold: Depends on who you are. The people at my shows are a mixed crowd, so from where I stand I’d definitely say a melting pot.

If it’s a melting pot, then why is it that so many bars, clubs and cultural events are often populated by people with similar cultural backgrounds?
Yosef: Well, that’s not 100 percent true. I know from my experience of being onstage and looking at the people, or going to a bar and sitting around a table with eight people from eight different countries from all over the world, the pot is melting in NYC. There’s no doubt that people still have a long way to go with this issue, but NYC is ahead of a lot of places.
Santogold: Someone who works at Bergdorf Goodman and lives on the Upper West Side might argue that it’s a mosaic. But that’s not New York’s problem, that’s them not taking advantage of the multiculturalism of their environment.
Shipp: The types of people who are in bars and clubs nowadays do seem like a few different variations of the same type of person. This is deadly for the real life-force of any of the arts or any related human activity that depends on ideas or talent for its impetus.
Hoch: Because the white Americans that have come here are largely unaware which cultural events and establishments were put here for them, and which ones are indigenous to the city and its diverse culture. Virtually none of my native New Yorker friends would be caught dead in any of the new restaurants, clubs, lounges or theaters that are only here for the “new people.” We are open-minded, but we also want to celebrate our own traditions and culture, and the venues for that are quickly being erased. We don’t take very kindly to feeling like tourists in our own city, and we have been made to feel like tourists, not coincidentally, since TONY began 13 years ago.
Kweli: The idea that you come to America to shed your culture for an American one is a myth. In any melting pot, you can still taste the flavor in the broth. It is not the loss of cultural identity that makes a melting pot, it is the addition.

Can we truly call ourselves diverse if we stay separated?
Q-Tip: No, we can’t. The only way diversity is achieved is through the intermingling of people.
Iyer: As far as I’m concerned, separate coexistence is not a huge problem as long as we have some semblance of equality. However, if you look at statistics about the city’s public schools, poverty, crime, employment, and racial profiling, it’s obvious that we still have a long way to go.
Willis: We are not separated. We have chosen to live in a diverse city. The separation comes only out of each of our desires to be singular.
Naison: We’re constantly borrowing one another’s food, music, language, and ways of walking, talking and dressing. The creation of hybrid cultural forms and styles is a constant feature of New York life.
Hoch: Let's be truthful, TONY's outlook is diverse—with white American consumers at the center. The real diversity of NYC's African-Americans and immigrants does not pay TONY's bills, is not TONY's core advertising base and is not TONY's core subscribership. As long as that is the case, then this conversation only serves to make white Americans in NYC feel better about their own entitlement, and affirms the idea of white American cultural supremacy. Only entitled white people who are in charge possess the cluelessness to ask these benign questions in 2008, in a city that you are clearly not the center of, yet wish to feel like you are the center of. Only entitled white people who are in charge possess the cluelessness to ask these benign questions in 2008.

NEXT: We all ride the train together, but do you find that we basically get off at different stops?»

We all ride the train together, but do you find that we basically get off at different stops?
Q-Tip: We’re starting to get off at the same stops but it’s because of gentrification. It’s not like the Smith-Buchanans are going over to the Mohammeds’ house.
Naison: I think New Yorkers often fit in many different categories at once. Is it more important that I am black than gay than female than a fan of bhangra music and slam poetry? What’s important about people’s identities can shift from moment to moment and the same person can get off at different stops at different times.
Hoch: The white American kids who get off at the same subway stop are not necessarily stepping into the same communities as the New Yorkers who are stepping off. There is the new phenomenon of American “vacuum communities” in NYC that exist in a bubble outside of the previously existing communities.
McBride: It’s not about train stops. It’s more about what you do once you get off the train. The Internet, TV, have changed the way we view each other. We were forced to interact in the past. Now we can just iPod and CrackBerry our way around.

Is the city getting whiter?
Yamamoto: No.
Iyer: It’s more sterile than it once was. But to me, it still looks just as brown as ever, and just as divided.
Hoch: White flight has reversed. Americans come here largely as consumers first, then as cultural contributors. The result is the economic and cultural erasure of black, immigrant and children-of-immigrant communities.
Parker: I’m not really concerned about whether the city is getting whiter. I think it’s losing its flavor and things are being homogenized. New York is about money: white money, Asian money and black money. In a country founded on racism, money is never just green. In 1975 I paid $90 a month for an apartment on 6th Street between First and Second Avenues. By 1985 that apartment was being rented for $800. Something ominous is happening in New York: Wherever there’s an empty lot, somebody is putting up an ugly building that blocks the light and the view of the sky.
Kweli: Our economy is built on borrowing, which leaves us in debt. When the country can’t pay its debts, only rich people can afford to live in a city where the cost of living is sky high. Living in New York City has become a bit like living in an office building.
Naison: Manhattan and some parts of Brooklyn—Park Slope, Williamsburg, Bushwick—are becoming whiter, but many outer-borough neighborhoods are becoming less white. Canarsie, which was predominantly Jewish and Italian 30 years ago, is now overwhelmingly West Indian, and all of Southern Queens, from Brooklyn to the Nassau border, consists of people of color from all over the globe.

Who runs NYC? Is the cultural elite still white?
Q-Tip: No. In the purveying of culture there is diversity among the people impacting Manhattan.
Parker: Culture is for everyone—the kids living in the projects in the Bronx and Brooklyn to the kids living in penthouses on the East side of Manhattan. Those who have the money call the shots.
Hoch: The cultural elite of NYC has never been white. However, the economic and media elite is, which is why we’re having a conversation in 2008 to assuage our collective economic and media guilt. We are not guilty because we’re white. We’re guilty when we continually put ourselves at the center of all cultural discourse and when we refuse to believe that maybe we actually could be wrong.
Iyer: Most of the cultural institutions have white leadership. Of course a lot of them are committed to accommodating diversity, presenting a broad range of work, and doing outreach into underserved communities, and I absolutely commend all of those efforts. But truthfully, that doesn’t send the same message as having real diversity among the positions of power.
Willis: If you are in Harlem the cultural elite include blacks and Latinos; if you live below 110th Street, it’s white. If you live below 14th or on the Lower East Side, it is mixed: Chinese, white, Latino and La MaMa.
Kweli: Cultural elite is another term for “white.”
McBride: If it looks like buzzard, and smells like buzzard, you can bet it ain’t catfish. But on the other hand, I don’t know what [“cultural elite”] means anymore. Great art and culture have usually—not always, but usually—emanated from a gutter someplace.

NEXT: In building our New York 40 list—which ended up including only three people of color—we considered ourselves color-blind. We had no quota. Is “color-blind” the right approach?»

In building our New York 40 list—which ended up including only three people of color—we considered ourselves color-blind. We had no quota. Is “color-blind” the right approach?
Iyer: No, it isn’t. Any claim of race neutrality in America is a total illusion.
Kweli: If there was a lack of color on the list, then you are obviously not color-blind.
Santogold: Whoever made that list obviously just doesn’t value the contributions of the people of color in NY as much.
Yosef: Of course it would be good to be color-blind, but that’s not realistic until the entire world is color-blind along with you.
McBride: You did nothing wrong. You went with your sphere of influence and what affected you. Learning to reach outside our little spheres is part of what journalists do. I suppose if there was a sin, it’s buried in that notion somewhere.
Brown: I do not believe it is possible to be color-blind. Race, nationality, and culture are a part of what forms a person. I don’t think the issue is about having a quota, but more about sensibility and mindfulness.
Yamamoto: The approach should be truly looking at each person’s artistic quality and approach. But more importantly, Time Out should have the diverse panels who understand diverse quality of arts to build the artist list. And if it’s possible, the list should be publicly open.
Lee: I sympathize with the panel that picked Time Out’s top 40 cultural tastemakers. When you’re on a panel, you want to choose people based on objective criteria without having to take their race into consideration. But unfortunately, our systems of valuation are loaded with racial biases. If I, a Korean-American female, had been on the panel, I probably would have been inclined to choose a bunch of white people myself. However, because I’m aware of the deep-seated, systematic racism that still exists within this country and myself, I would have made an effort to include more people of color.

I think that a lot of New Yorkers are eager to believe that we are living in a post-race society, in which most people are color-blind and we've all "moved beyond" racism and political correctness. I'm not going to get into the ways in which the United States' educational and legal systems perpetuate the racism that underlies this country, but anyone who believes that affirmative action has solved our country's race problems is seriously mistaken.

Color-blindness is a myth. People who think of themselves as color-blind can do a surprising amount of harm, because they don't find it necessary to be careful and end up doing all kinds of racist things without knowing it. That's why I think it's imperative to stay aware of racial difference. It's unfortunate, because we all want to just see people as people, but the truth is that staying aware of race is the only way to keep from behaving in an unconsciously discriminatory manner. I certainly believe in behaving towards people of other ethnicities as if you were color-blind, but in order to truly do that you have to make a conscious effort. Because we all still make unconscious assumptions about people based on their race—we just do—it's part of the air we breathe.

If anyone ever accuses you of any kind of racial bias or insensitivity, the absolute best thing you can do is to ask questions and listen.

How does race factor into the work in your field?
Parker: Race influences everything from catching a taxi to getting a bank loan. Ninety percent of all music writers are white, club owners and promoters are white. At this point, one can make a choice: Get hung up in racial politics, which if unchecked can lead to a severe lack of growth, or one can forge ahead.
Iyer: Being a South Asian who makes jazz and new-American music certainly sets me apart in some ways, and it’s fair to say that this has in some ways helped me. That said, it’s too easy to oversimplify things because of my ethnicity. Also, the Asian-nerd cliché follows me around like the plague. Critics constantly say that my music is “complex” and “mathematical.” It’s like my friend Pamela Z once put it: “When people can see you, they hear something else.”
Yamamoto: I try not to get bothered by these decisions. Bottom line is that I am focusing on my creative process no matter what.
Q-Tip: Race still affects things. I throw a party at Santos and if there’s hip-hop playing and Busta comes and Nas comes, the owners get a little nerved out. They think it’s a return to 1986 and we’re peddling crack. I don’t fault them. I think it’s just a little bit of ignorance there.
Yosef: I never think about those things in this way. Before I belong to any race or color, I am a human, and I always act from that state of mind...unconsciously. So race has no influence whatsoever on my life as a person or a musician, for good or for bad.
Hoch: Several white Americans see me as betraying American cultural importance and are confused because they have no polycultural background to reference my NYC “whiteness.” Other resident-tourists have no idea what my work is about because they see me as the exotic foreigner in NYC, even though my family and I have been here for four generations. But actual New Yorkers of all backgrounds see me as relevant.
Kweli: In my field, race is a key factor. Being of African descent gives me a natural sense of rhythm and helps me to identify and communicate the problems of oppressed people through music. It also ensures that I will never make a fraction of the money off my art that some white man does, real talk.
Willis: With the erasure of the black voices in the larger culture, I have to continue to work hard and make the invisible visible. It does not hurt. Tenacity is what keeps me focused.
Jamison: Talent is what has a great deal to do with someone’s success. Race cannot be negated, nor should it be. But it should also not be something that separates people—it would be something that brings us together.

How has multiculturalism in NYC changed over the years? Where do you see it going?
Hoch: NYC is going through an ethnic and class cleansing due to the devastating yet profitable economic footprint of our new white American and European neighbors. If the Giuliani-Bloomberg economy continues on its path, this city is not just going to be only for white people, but it is going to be only for rich people, and the rest of us are going to be forced to go serf it out on the other side of the moat. Although the moat line is getting redrawn every week.
Kweli: Multiculturalism used to be a word that allowed educators to get more money for inner-city schools. Now it is a brand name. For young people today, they live it without needing to define it.
McBride: It hasn’t changed, it’s just got a new title. It’s called “money.” Wherever it is, you ain’t gonna find it between 116th Street and Wall Street. Look in the Bronx, Queens, the outer reaches of Brooklyn, Staten Island, or nearby Jersey.
Shipp: I don’t know. Even though New York has always been about money, at least it was an environment that embraced all kinds of different things—avant-jazz, new wave punk, et cetera. But if the corporate mentality takes over, the city is dead. It’s like a morgue now. I mean, good stuff still happens but there is something that can slowly change if the real-estate people become the people who really runthe city.
Iyer: I’m no politician, but in terms of culture, I feel that so-called multiculturalism, if it exists, could be reexamined. There’s a sort of token inclusiveness that happens sometimes with presenters: You’ll see them book a couple of random brown acts just to cover their asses. Also, there’s this unproductive conflation of multiculturalism with internationalism. I find that presenters and consumers will embrace music or art from halfway around the world, often at great expense, rather than deal in-depth with the diasporic communities that live down the street.
Willis: Wealth and power have changed. Where do you see it going? Frightfully, it has not encouraged the voices of the true multiculti city.
Yosef: Well, it depends on where the world is going, too. It’s a chain reaction. There have been a lot of events in and out of NYC that affect our way of life and culture globally. Culture is constantly changing and everyone has roots, and I think we should remember our roots but stay positive, open-minded and fearless to create a remix of multicultural art and way of life.
Santogold: Judging from what I see in New York in my scene, and from the trends in music —where all types of people are listening to all types of music, and the genre lines are becoming blurred— I think we will see more of the melting pot, as you call it, and less of the mosaic.
Naison: New York is going to be a vital center of cultural creativity for the foreseeable future, with much of the most exciting developments taking place in the outer boroughs. The best is yet to come.

NEXT: What NYC establishments are truly multicultural?»

What NYC establishments are truly multicultural?
Parker: [The] New York Public library.
Hoch: The Bronx Zoo, the subway, the Public Library, CUNY, the DMV, traffic court, the post office, the clinics and some hospitals.
Shipp: All establishments and institutions are full of shit. I challenge anyone to come up with an institution that is ''right'' in any way. What is great about the city is that like-minded people get together to forge their own ethos and ways of being and have the freedom to do so without being looked at as being freaks
Kweli: Hip-hop.
McBride: Taxi cabs, public schools, public libraries and public bathrooms. That's about it.
Brown: Aaron Davis Hall, New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Symphony Space, 651 Arts.
Iyer: The greatest equalizer is always the DMV. You'll run into everyone over there. Of course, even that changed during the Homeland Security roundups, when certain immigrants were justifiably afraid that they might make a trip to the DMV and not come back.
Santogold: The subway.
Q-Tip: The Union Square area is diverse…that whole bubble is to me the most multicultural section of the city. On the weekends you see functions in the park, whether it be someone on the bullhorn talking about free Tibet or some kids with drums and break-dancers entertaining the weekend tourists. There’s a lot of interaction there.
Yosef: Mehanata: Bulgarian Bar. Joe's Pub. Celebrate Brooklyn.
Jamison: At Ailey performances, when the lights in the theater come on, you would be surprised at who you see and who you’re sitting next to and how diverse our audiences are. That is something that is reflected in the Ailey organization.
Willis: Macy’s.

NEXT in Essentials 2008: Living color Despite NYC’s diversity, it’s not often that you find yourself amid a nice racial mix.»

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